Few people enjoy being hit. Nearly everyone has an innate fear of being struck. Students may dislike the idea of receiving a painful injury, worry that they may lose consciousness, or be concerned about long-term health risks. These are of course all legitimate concerns.
But, believe it or not, being hit has benefits. The first benefit is that it teaches you where your protection skills are vulnerable. You were hit because in some way or another you allowed it to happen. A strike is a reminder to be vigilant about your defenses.
Another benefit is you learn that being hit is not the end of the world. It better prepares you for the situation where you are struck in a combative situation. If you have never been struck before then being hit can be very disorienting and disrupting. It is such a new and unusual experience that you may realistically be stunned and dazed. It is particularly disheartening to hear stories of black belts who are attacked and are immediately stunned because they have never experienced being struck before.
Becoming dazed is frequently a mental condition and may not be a medical issue (though a possible resulting concussion or other brain injury can be a major medical consequence). If you have been struck many times before then a strike that occurs in a conflict is simply another strike (provided it did not impact something that could be crippling or life threatening). You have the ability to deal with it and move it. With enough experience the strike may barely be noticed.
When you first begin sparring you will of course notice bruises or abrasions where you have been struck. These are lessened significantly by the proper use of padding (shin guards, foot pads, etc.), but some bruising may still occur in unprotected areas. Usually all of this is pretty minor, but some bruises may be sensitive to the touch for a day or two. But as you gain significant experience with sparring you may begin to notice that you seldom bruise any longer (this effect actually takes a fairly long time to develop). This may be a combination of improved defensive skills and the body’s adaptive powers. Unfortunately, not everyone experiences this improvement due to genetics, disease, or nutritional deficiency.
This is often referred to as body hardening. Your body naturally seems to adapt to the stresses it repeatedly encounters. Some practitioners deliberately strike their bodies as a way to strengthen them. This is often done to improve bone strength. In the late 19th century surgeon Julius Wolff proposed that bones adapt to the stresses to which they are exposed. Bones which experience more stress become increasingly dense (naturally you can take this too far, which may result in a broken bone). Bones with little or no stress become thinner and may become brittle.
Football players, runners, tennis players, weight lifters, Samurai, and baseball players typically all have experienced increased bone strength in the long bones most associated with their activities. The legs and arms of most martial artists, especially those engaged in one-on-one activities with another practitioner also experience bone strengthening in long bones related to their movements and impacts.
Some practitioners (especially in some martial arts styles) spend a good deal of effort to strengthen the bones in their legs, feet, hands, and arms. They will strike repeatedly into water, sand, pebbles, trees, or even concrete to toughen the bones in their hands. They may strike a Makiwara or tree with their hands, arms, legs and feet specifically to place the associated bones under repeated stress so they become larger and denser. Individuals who have done this for decades may have unusually large and disfigured knuckles, shins, or other extremity bones.
To a lesser degree the skills you use while sparring will also work to improve bone density in the bones you use for blocking and striking. Simply moving about on your legs may do much to improve the overall density of leg bones. We do not encourage bone-on-bone contact (or even bone-on-tree contact), but simply moving an arm puts some additional stress on the associated bones. Any additional stress the bones undergo from contact are also likely to improve the density of the bones over time.
We do not have a specific program or requirement that students use a Makiwara or other device to stress and develop bone strength. We do not discourage the practice either, but it is not a defined part of our curriculum. We think students should start with the hardening benefits associated with two person contact and then decide for themselves if they wish to pursue other alternatives.
We do not want to minimize the effects of impact injuries, particularly recurring impacts to the head. If you are struck anywhere, even in the course of a courteous and friendly sparring match, you may incur injuries. These may be minor, but they may be more severe as well. If you experience a moderate to severe injury you should seek immediate medical evaluation.
Strikes to the head can be particularly dangerous. If you believe that wearing headgear will protect you from head injury then you are, unfortunately, misinformed. The headgear may protect your skin and bones from some level of direct impact, but your brain is afforded little protection. Most brain injuries from sparring occur because of the sudden acceleration of the skull which then internally collides with the free-floating brain. Following this contact the brain is then forced to move and it will eventually collide with the opposite side of the cranium. The brain is often injured on two opposite sides almost simultaneously. This may cause someone to lose consciousness – which is certainly not good. Even if you do not suffer any immediate consequences you may suffer either short term or long term debilitating injuries. The injuries can add up. Over time you may find your mental functioning and memory has suffered.
Some students believe they are invincible and think taking punishment to the head and body is a sign of virility and tenacity. Every blow they willingly take to the head and body will someday come back to haunt them. Do not take head contact lightly and do everything you can to prevent it from happening to yourself and to a training partner.
If you have been struck to the head and suffer any form of nausea, memory loss, vision problems, loss of consciousness, balance problems, hearing impairment, or other issues that could be related to brain function then it is imperative that you seek medical assistance immediately. These symptoms are signs of a potentially life threatening condition and should never be ignored. You must seek medical attention. You may have only a matter of a few hours to live if you do not seek treatment.
Strikes to areas containing vital organs can also lead to significant health risks. If you have been struck in the trunk of the body (front or back) and subsequently notice blood in your urine or excrement or begin to feel weak, disoriented, imbalanced, or suffer any sudden onset of unusual symptoms then you should seek medical attention immediately. If you have internal bleeding or have sustained internal organ damage then you may be in need of immediate medical intervention. Do not put it off until tomorrow.
If you have been injured in some other way, perhaps a sprain or strain, a muscle injury, or even a broken bone, then you will need to take the necessary time to allow the injury to properly heal. Returning to sparring practice when you have such an injury is only inviting additional problems. If you are unable to move normally then you risk injury to another area of your body. If the injured area is aggravated again then you may set back the course of recovery substantially or introduce additional and worsening complications. Take the time necessary to ensure you are fully mended before you return to any contact activities.
If you have been injured be sure to let you instructor(s) know so they can employ training activities that are less likely to exacerbate your injury. If you think you have healed but notice problems developing while training then let you instructor or training partner know so they can help ensure your injury does not return and that related complications do not develop.